By the time Anthony Levandowski left Google to start a competing self-driving company, his new venture may have had a key advantage: More than 14,000 documents—amounting to almost 10 GB of confidential data—that Levandowski allegedly copied from Google and brought to the new firm.
Those documents are now at the center of a high-profile court case between Uber, which acquired Levandowski’s new venture, and Google-subsidiary, Waymo, which claims Levandowski stole sensitive trade secrets.
The case is making for high drama in Silicon Valley but also raises an important question. Can firms like Google (GOOG) do anything to stop employees like Levandowski from making off with confidential data in the first place?
Ajay Arora, CEO of a Palo Alto, Calif.-based security firm called Vera, says yes. He claims Vera’s technology, which lets companies adds security features like a “kill switch” to sensitive documents, makes it much easier for firms to nail down their trade secrets.
Vera, which launched in 2014 under the name Veradocs, currently counts the likes of CapitalOne, Cisco, and other Fortune 100 companies among its customers.
In practice, Vera works by letting managers wrap documents with a set of permission layers—for instance, employees may only be able to view, but not cut-and-paste or print, certain files. The permission settings are also fluid, meaning managers could revoke access to certain documents entirely.
“If Google had used our technology to encrypt and dynamically control that data, and all those specifications and drawings, even if he left they could have killed access to all of it,” Arora says.
While assigning permission settings to files is hardly new, Vera claims one of its advantages is that the settings work across any platform. This means managers can secure documents even as they move from Office 365 to Dropbox and so on.
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“We add an audit trail and chain-of-custody evidence,” says Arora, noting customers can also use Vera settings to prevent screenshots.
The technology of Vera, and those of its competitors like San Jose, Calif.-based Vormetric, represent a promising way for firms to protect confidential information. But there also appear to be some obvious limitations—for instance, what is to stop an employee from simply using their phone camera to record documents on the screen?
Meanwhile, big technology firms like Google or Apple can create their own in-house document security programs. (A person close to Google, who did not wish to speak on record, challenged Arora’s assertion that the company could have done more to secure the Waymo files).
Arora concedes Vera’s tools won’t stop every single instance of intellectual property theft, but argues they are a huge improvement that make it much harder for employees to walk out the door with sensitive information.
As of April, Arora says Vera has 115 employees and that its revenue growth was 400% higher in the last quarter compared to the same period in 2016.